Since Roe v Wade arguments in defense of elective abortion have undergone an evolution. The nature of this evolution has been one of retreat. Elective abortion was initially defended by appealing to medical ignorance. It’s just a clump of cells, It’s not human, It’s not alive, We don’t know when life begins — have all been refuted by medical science. In fact pro-choice advocates have tipped their hand in recognizing this by challenging any attempt to inform the mother what exactly is growing within her womb before she decides to abort it. A recent Texas law would require:
[A]ny woman who wants an abortion would have to watch their sonogram first, listen as a doctor describes the fetus to her, hear the heartbeat and then wait 24 hours before having the procedure.
But objectors claim the law, “treats women as incompetent, idiotic people who cannot make their own health care decisions. And it also requires doctors to violate their own medical ethics in advising their patients on their healthcare.” The law merely requires the doctor inform the woman exactly what is in the womb and what an abortion accomplishes. One has to ask, in what other medical scenario is requiring the doctor to inform the patient considered treating their patients as incompetent and idiotic? Full disclosure usually expected. Only with abortion are women expected to make their choice in medical ignorance, in fact — judging by the objections to being informed — it seems like they want women to be required to make it in ignorance.
Now with the advancement of embryology and biology, the appeals cannot be credibly made any longer that elective abortion does not end the life of a human being. The evolution of abortion advocacy has been forced into philosophy. “The fertilized egg may in fact be human, and may in fact be alive — but it is not a person. Only persons, and not mere human beings, have a right to life. Therefore, because abortion takes the life of a human being, but not a person, abortion is morally permissible.” †
The personhood defense is the last resort of the abortion advocate. It provides refuge in muddled, fluid, and arbitrary terms. Advocates for the personhood defense provide lists of qualifications that make a mere human being, a person. Lists usually include the following:
- Consciousness — being self-aware, the ability to reflect
- Ability to act beyond instinct — have motives and goals
- Temporal projection — the ability to look toward the future (realization that there is a tomorrow or next week)
- Capability of reactionary emotion — understanding and awareness of love, hope, anger, etc.
The components of the list are inconsequential as far what they are, for many reasons. Not the least of which is the list is utterly arbitrary. Everyone has their own list with similarities and differences, and no one has any transcendent authority to impose their list of qualifiers on other people. They may be useful guidelines for what might be a person, but nothing necessitates the particular traits on anyone’s list. Conditions for personhood can be included or removed depending on the one making the list, or depending on who you need to fail the test.
It is in this way that the personhood argument begs the question. It is based on definitional assertions. And it is these definitions that are exactly what is up for debate. Why these, who says so, and to what degree? All personhood properties are held in degree. People have different levels of consciousness, intuition, psychological maturity, etc. It follows then that since no one holds equal degrees of psychological states/personhood attributes, then not everyone are equal persons — if personhood is as important to rights as it is presented.
The most unfortunate unintended consequence to requiring the qualities as defined for personhood is, more often than not the list would also disqualify newborns and some impaired adults from the right to life. And differentiation between newborns and impaired adults and a fetus is wholly arbitrary and wreaks of special pleading. In fact it cannot be done without inconsistency. Special exceptions are made for people who are sleeping, under anesthesia, or otherwise unconscious. But any special exception undermines the argument all together. These humans who lack the personhood attributes, don’t meet the qualifications, but are protected. The exemptions serve to show that the qualities are truly not the qualifier for protection. Rather, it is some outside standard other than personhood qualities that is being applied in order to protect these people, again with blatant arbitrarity.
But for the sake of argument, let’s agree that the criteria on an arbitrary list is actually meaningful, what does this mean? We end up valuing the attribute rather than the subject. Hope and consciousness are deemed more valuable than the one who possesses them, essentially bestowing the values with the rights and protections. The human is just an elaborate carrier. It doesn’t sound right, I know. But if the living human body can be terminated and discarded only until some kind of psychological state is somehow added, it is the psychological state that holds the value.
The truth is the only thing human beings hold equally is their human nature. They are equal because of the kind of thing they are, not what they can do. Even a cursory reflection makes this point obvious. If two or more people are standing in a line, what would you point to in order to show they are equals and may not be killed at will? Is it their size? Or shape? Or how many limbs they have? Do we give them a psychological exam before determining if one or any can be killed? It seems disingenuous to require the immature human being to possess the attributes of a fully mature human being. No, we understand that regardless of their level of physical or psychological development, they are worthy of not having their life taken at will because of the kind of thing they are.
I actually had someone offer to me this syllogism:
- A human fetus is less of a person than a baby pig.
- We kill baby pigs for a host of reasons both good and specious.
- Therefore it is ok to kill human fetuses.